Two years ago in Lincoln County, Acompañar formed out of community need. Asylum seekers were paying exorbitant rates for rides to their Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) appointments and local leaders got together to fix that. Now, 2 years later, they have expanded to raising funds and continuing to build systems of mutual support. Read on to learn more about how they got started, the victories they have won and what they are working on next! Excited to get to work in your community? Reach out to your friendly ROP organizer by emailing email@example.com!
Acompañar was founded with a simple thought: “What can I do to help?” In 2019, Ginger Gouveia watched the news of asylum-seekers stopped at the US-Mexico border and felt stuck contemplating how people like her who live in Lincoln County could make a difference in the lives of asylum-seekers. She thought about going to the border to volunteer for organizations supporting people there, and then she learned that many asylum-seekers living in Lincoln County were experiencing abuse at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) appointments and struggling to get reliable and affordable transportation to Eugene or Portland for monthly check-ins and court hearings.
Ginger began having conversations with her neighbors and soon learned that many of the asylum-seekers living in Lincoln County were Indigenous Guatemalans, which were prioritized by the Trump administration for detention and deportation. With no public transportation, or access to drivers licenses, folks were paying $200-500 per ride for their monthly appointments at the ICE field office in Eugene and up to $1,000 to get to immigration court hearings in Portland.
Ginger talked to her neighbors and friends about this and together they came up with a list of drivers that could shuttle asylum seekers to and from their check-in appointments free of charge.
Building a Regional Ride & Support Network
At ROP’s 2019 Rural Caucus and Strategy Session, Ginger connected with other human dignity groups who support asylum-seekers and migrants in the region. Together they developed a shuttle network that started in Newport and drove to Corvallis where drivers from Linn and Benton Counties would complete the trip from Corvallis to Eugene or to Portland, and then back again after the appointment or court hearing. Organizing a shuttle route that spanned several hundred miles round trip was one of the first hurdles they accomplished. With the route set, they also saw the need to implement training for all of their drivers so everyone would know how to respond if they were pulled over or hassled by ICE.
Acompañar set up a communication system for asylum-seekers needing rides to the folks who were trained and ready to drive, overcoming the challenges of working across English, Spanish, and Mam (the main Indigenous Guatemalan language spoken by asylum-seekers in the area). Lining up Spanish and Mam speakers with trusted relationships in the asylum seeking community as dispatchers, Acompañar was able to find out who needed a ride from where and when and could then take that information and match people with an available driver. From the summer of 2019 until spring of 2020, Acompañar provided consistent monthly rides to 9 asylum-seekers which amounted to roughly 80 shuttle trips, logging easily over 10,000 miles.
In March 2020, COVID-19 shut down the state and after multiple weeks of uncertainty, the ICE office in Eugene fully closed. While the English-speaking drivers knew about the shutdown from the news, ICE refused to communicate clearly about the changing expectations around scheduled monthly meetings with asylum-seekers, which added to the stress of a global pandemic because oftentimes missing a scheduled ICE appointment leads to immediate detention or deportation. Acompañar and ROP reached out to Senator Merkley’s office to ask if they could get in direct contact with ICE’s regional director to get their decisions about canceling in-person monthly check-ins in writing. Thanks to Acompañar’s established relationships with the families they were working with, they were able to translate and share out the message about changing expectations at the ICE office, and also pressure ICE officials to send out a letter notifying families of the new phone-based procedures. Through all of this back and forth, they started hearing about the new struggles asylum-seekers were facing because of the pandemic.
Responding to Emerging Community Needs
Lincoln County’s asylum-seeking population mostly works in seafood packing plants or in the service industry, staffing hotels and restaurants that cater to the tourist economy. When COVID-19 struck, both industries came to a grinding halt. Many were out of work and most were not eligible for any type of assistance programs since most programs require US citizenship. Making navigating a global pandemic even more difficult, most of the information in Lincoln County (and everywhere else in the state) was available only in English, and later in English and Spanish. Getting information about how to protect your family and your community from COVID-19, what resources are available in the community, and other critical pieces of information weren’t translated into languages Indigenous Guatemalan people speak, such as Mam.
Acompañar began to raise money to buy bulk rice, beans, and masa to help families scrape by. Neighbors began donating their stimulus checks and others started reaching out to the rest of the community for donations. As the crisis continued, Yachats Community Presbyterian Church offered to sponsor the funds so donors could make tax deductible donations, and the First Baptist Church in Newport provided space for twice monthly distributions of food and other necessities. Acompañar began working with Lincoln County Food Share to expand the amount of food they were sharing, and the Ollala Center helped with other support services including interpretation and creating and circulating informational videos in Mam. Throughout the pandemic, access to services and reliable information has been incredibly difficult for people who are excluded from many opportunities because of their documentation status on top of the barriers indigenous language-speakers face. When vaccines became available, Acompañar collaborated with the Ollala Center to coordinate pop-up vaccine clinics held at the First Baptist Church with Mam interpreters.
In the first year of the pandemic, Acompañar raised over $110,000 and served hundreds of families throughout the year. Beginning with a twice-monthly distribution of culturally relevant food and cash for other necessities, their work eventually expanded to a coat drive, sharing gift certificates, and internet access through a mobile hotspot to pay bills and make telehealth appointments.
Continuing To Build Systems of Support
Acompañar is continuing to build community and systems of mutual support. Most recently, they heard about folks getting pulled over for busted tail lights or other small driving infractions, so they raised funds to help people fix their tail lights. Acompañar hopes to restart the ride network to get folks to ICE appointments in Eugene and their next project is helping break down the barriers for obtaining driver’s licenses. Acompañar is making arrangements with a local driver’s education company to provide driving lessons with Mam speaking instructors, plus fundraising to help families pay for the lessons.
When human dignity groups are deeply embedded in their local community like Acompañar, COVID-19 and other emergencies can lead to powerful campaigns for human dignity. What challenges are coming up in your community? What event or conversation sparked a new campaign for your human dignity group? What have you learned in the past year that has changed the way your group focuses their energy? Let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to share stories about what your group has been up to and to support your work!